This post is by Ricardo Bilton from Nieman Lab
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If you believe the experts, regularly eating dark chocolate can help lower your blood pressure, make you smarter, and help you lose weight. Also, say the experts: Chocolate can contribute to obesity and diabetes and cause acid reflux. Confusion over the health benefits of foods like chocolate, conditions like autism, and scientific phenomena like global warming is sometimes a product of bad scientific research, but it can also be a product of bad science reporting. Journalists, particularly those who don’t specialize in the subject, just may not understand either the science they’re writing about, and that confusion can creep into their reporting and affect readers’ understanding. Those readers can then spread that misunderstanding to others. Turning that around is the mission behind Sciline, a new nonprofit that’s trying to improve the quality of science reporting by making it easier for reporters to connect with experts who can guide them through stories about science, health, and the environment. And, just as important, Sciline promises to work within reporters’ deadlines. Since last November, Sciline’s database of 3,000 scientists and researchers has fielded just over 60 requests from news organizations such as the Savannah Morning News, The New York Times, Newsweek, and National Geographic, who sought insight on stories about topics such as millipedes, the value of certain medical procedures, and whether you should be worried about spilling personal secrets while under anesthesia. Sciline, now at five people, is run out of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and funded by the Quadrivium Foundation, the Rita Allen Foundation, the Heinz Endowments, and the Knight Foundation. Rick Weiss, the director of Sciline and himself a veteran science reporter, said that the project comes at a vital time for both the production and distribution of science reporting. “We have a situation right now where there are fewer reporters who know the science deeply, and there are more opportunities for them to get taken off track or fooled into believing and writing stories that are wrong,” Weiss said. He contrasted that with the peak years of American newspaper newsrooms, when, he said, it was more common for science reporters to have graduate degrees and be dedicated to the subject. Most of those kinds of reporters have since disappeared from general-interest publications, and so have the science sections of the newspapers many used to write for. Weiss added that reporters’ confusion often isn’t a product of a misunderstanding of the science itself, but rather the methodology that scientists have used to reach their findings or to confirm those findings’ significance. Many studies that are funded by special interests, with varying degrees of transparency, which can influence how findings are produced. “These are the kinds of things where it can be really helpful to have an expert say, ‘Hey, let’s really look at what the strengths and weaknesses are of this study, or even if this study is worth writing about in the first place,'” said Weiss. “And if a reporter is going to write about it, the question for us is how we can help them put the right caveats in place to make sure they don’t lead people astray.” As part of its effort to better educate today’s science reporters, Sciline is planning a series of bus tours to cities around the U.S., where it will meet with local news organizations to learn more about how it can help reporters cover science stories in their local communities. “We want to focus on medium-sized communities that don’t have large science institutions or specialty reporters, not The New York Times or Wall Street Journal,” said Weiss. (Just a few days after visiting Pittsburgh, the first city on its tour, Sciline has already gotten requests from local reporters there.) In a similar vein, Sciline’s editors have also produced fact sheets on topics such as gravitational waves and lead in drinking water, which are designed to give reporters key facts vital to adding context to their stories. Sciline also plans to produce virtual media briefings that will connect reporters with experts who will be to introduce them to science topics in the news. Sciline’s ambitions, however admirable, face a difficult task to counterbalance larger trends in news production and social media, which have made it easier than ever for people to discover and spread information that they don’t realize is false or incomplete. Weiss said that reporters used to call certain pitches “too good to check” because often reporting them out revealed them to be far less interesting than they’d originally appeared. “There’s so much pressure right now that it’s very tempting, more than ever, to just go with something that you know is going to be of interest with readers and catch their attention,” he said. “Often, it’s only your conscience and sense of journalistic responsibility that prevents you from hitting publish.”
Photo of a lab by iT@c used under a Creative Commons license.